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The influence of N-acetyl-L-cysteine on oxidative stress and nitric oxide synthesis in stimulated macrophages treated with a mustard gas analogue

Victor Paromov1, Min Qui1, Hongsong Yang1, Milton Smith2 and William L Stone1*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Pediatrics, College of Medicine, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN 37614, USA

2 AMAOX, Ltd., #208, 6300 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne, FL 32944, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Cell Biology 2008, 9:33  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-9-33

Published: 20 June 2008



Sulphur mustard gas, 2, 2'-dichlorodiethyl sulphide (HD), is a chemical warfare agent. Both mustard gas and its monofunctional analogue, 2-chloroethyl ethyl sulphide (CEES), are alkylating agents that react with and diminish cellular thiols and are highly toxic. Previously, we reported that lipopolysaccharide (LPS) significantly enhances the cytotoxicity of CEES in murine RAW 264.7 macrophages and that CEES transiently inhibits nitric oxide (NO) production via suppression of inducible NO synthase (iNOS) protein expression. NO generation is an important factor in wound healing. In this paper, we explored the hypotheses that LPS increases CEES toxicity by increasing oxidative stress and that treatment with N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) would block LPS induced oxidative stress and protect against loss of NO production. NAC stimulates glutathione (GSH) synthesis and also acts directly as a free radical scavenger. The potential therapeutic use of the antibiotic, polymyxin B, was also evaluated since it binds to LPS and could thereby block the enhancement of CEES toxicity by LPS and also inhibit the secondary infections characteristic of HD/CEES wounds.


We found that 10 mM NAC, when administered simultaneously or prior to treatment with 500 μM CEES, increased the viability of LPS stimulated macrophages. Surprisingly, NAC failed to protect LPS stimulated macrophages from CEES induced loss of NO production. Macrophages treated with both LPS and CEES show increased oxidative stress parameters (cellular thiol depletion and increased protein carbonyl levels). NAC effectively protected RAW 264.7 cells simultaneously treated with CEES and LPS from GSH loss and oxidative stress. Polymyxin B was found to partially block nitric oxide production and diminish CEES toxicity in LPS-treated macrophages.


The present study shows that oxidative stress is an important mechanism contributing to CEES toxicity in LPS stimulated macrophages and supports the notion that antioxidants could play a therapeutic role in preventing mustard gas toxicity. Although NAC reduced oxidative stress in LPS stimulated macrophages treated with CEES, it did not reverse CEES-induced loss of NO production. NAC and polymyxin B were found to help prevent CEES toxicity in LPS-treated macrophages.